Ultimate Nice Girl or Unapologetic Crowd-Pleaser? A Review of Miss Americana

As someone who has always struggled with endorsing Taylor Swift, I was interested to watch her new Netflix documentary Miss Americana.

And, as the not-so-secret intention of Miss Americana was to portray Swift in an overtly positive light, it was inevitable that I came away feeling sympathetic towards her. Even marginally liking her (shock reacts only).

Miss Americana did have some positive aspects. For starters, the 1 hour 25 minute documentary details many problems with the modern day media, particularly its fixation on the female body and the pressures this brings about for celebrities. As Swift points out, in a scene where she leaves her apartment faced with a wall of screaming fans, the media’s expectations of how women are supposed to look are ‘all just fucking impossible’. The pressure on women to reinvent themselves more than men, and the stereotypical portrayal of women as manipulative, menacing, and evil, are also things Swift has fallen victim to.

Miss Americana also touches on issues of women’s portrayal as ‘sluts’, with one reporter seen describing Swift as ‘going through guys like a train’ as her busy dating life went very public. It also delves into the darker side of the oppression against what women do with their bodies when documenting Swift’s sexual assault court case, where she counter-sued her abuser for a symbolic one dollar (and won!). And the toxic cancel culture which led to her name trending worldwide andrecieving a lot of hate.

All of this is very good. What is disappointing, though, is the complete blindness to Swift’s privilege. Although the flashbacks to her youth show a relatively humble ‘girl next door’ performing for small crowds, it doesn’t acknowledge why she was able to do that in the first place, and what actually led to her global success. Namely, she was white, conformative, and middle class.

Swift continuously reminds viewers of Miss Americana that her success is down to ‘hard work’ and a strong ‘work ethic’, with her suggesting that she’s ‘only here because she’s nice to people’. Although this may be true (her work ethic, not her being nice to everyone, but more on this later), it doesn’t explain why there are tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of non-white, non-American singers not getting the same kind of recognition and success. Swift’s privilege is shocking, but unfortunately unsurprising.

There is no better moment at showcasing this than when the singer is seen getting a call to tell her that she has not been nominated for a Grammy award. What she deems her ‘work ethic’ then merely comes across as being spoiled; she exclaims ‘I need to make a better record’, ignoring the actual success of her record and focusing purely on her reward and recognition for it. Unfortunately, this happens to black artists all the time. Ignoring the blindingly obvious, institutional inequality of Western awards ceremonies, where music is not nominated or won because it is ‘good’, but because it stems from existing privilege and conformity, is disappointing. It also straight up contradicts Swift's apparent ethos that it's 'all about the music'.

Another moment which sets the rather sad tone of Miss Americana was the initial five minutes of the documentary, where Swift hammers home that her aim was always ‘to please everyone’, that she ‘lived for pats on the head’, and her desire was to be ‘a good girl’ in the eyes of others. This attitude, although portrayed as innocent and sweet, is frustrating, even infuriating to watch. It’s what has inevitably led her to become the bandwagon-jumping artist she has been for so many years. Her initial audience was overwhelmingly white, Christian, and many conservative – these were the people she claims to have needed validation from. The validation on which she says she based her entire moral compass. She appears to identify this as a fault of the industry, and although that may have been true, it always takes someone to break the mould. She had the power to be that someone.

Nevertheless, there is an effort to suggest Swift’s shift towards independent thinking and activism towards the end of the documentary, and that is relatively believable. It’s unarguable that she has used her platform more effectively in recent years. But it’s hard not to see Swift’s ‘activism’ as another bandwagon jump – as her benefiting from the work of others that have made political openness and equality as mainstream as it now is. And yet, despite this hard work of other, often marginalized individuals, Swift’s decision to speak out against an anti-gay, anti-women’s rights republican candidate is still seen as a ‘risky move’ by her and her majority-white team.

Despite the knock-back of this particular candidate winning the midterm election, it thankfully doesn’t seem to have knocked her newfound ‘passion’ for political activism. I genuinely do hope she continues to use her platform positively. However, despite showing Swift receiving her award for politically-charged, pride-themed song You Need to Calm Down, it doesn’t highlight any of the criticism she received for queer-baiting from some of the queer community. Criticism which, although is controversial and debated, is a key part of Swift's musical 'comeback'.

Nor does Miss Americana discuss any of the legitimate criticism of Swift in the media. For example, her single Bad Blood, which indirectly attacked fellow singer Katy Perry in an aggressive video featuring her ‘girl squad’ ganging up on Perry, was a prime example of everything Swift claims to stand so strongly against. Despite her more recent message of women uniting being shown continuously in the documentary, her notoriously exclusive clique of top models and actresses back in the day sent more of a message to her fans to either fit in or be excluded. Surprise surprise, this is not even hinted at in Miss Americana. Basically, any narrative that suggests Swift may not be this angelic ‘nice girl’ is nowhere to be seen.

So, although inducing plenty of sympathy and portraying Swift as incredibly likable, Miss Americana has left me no more or less of a fan than before. And I really hope she is not championed for saying she wants to ‘wear pink and tell you what I have to think about politics’…there are far bigger challenges at hand than being able to ‘wear pink’.